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Rights Groups Question Refugee Repatriation

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As discussion intensifies on the issue on repatriating Burmese refugees from Thailand, rights groups and activists said an assessment of the refugees' dilemma must take place before a decision is made, and that no repatriations should be carried out without a full military withdrawal, a cease-fire and a mine-cleaning program in eastern Burma.

The date of repatriation for some 140,000 Burmese refugees from camps along the Thai-Burmese border has not yet been set, but it is said to be under serious consideration by the various Thai authorities.

On Sunday, TIME magazine quoted Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn as saying that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had instructed security officials to prepare an evaluation of the situation before he decides whether or not to close the refugee camps.

NGO sources said that Thailand plans to send the refugees back as it sees repatriation as the only solution. It will take place over time, however, said several observers.

Despite international complaints, Thailand in 2009 repatriated over 4,000 ethnic Hmong refugees to Laos, where the ethnic minority's persecution had been well documented.

The announcement of a plan to repatriate the Burmese refugees—most of whom are ethnic Karen—came just days after Burma swore in a new government on March 30 and with that, officially dissolved its previous ruling military junta.

Several observers said the move to repatriate is because many in Thailand see the refugees as a burden, and it is a good time for them to go home as a new “civilian” government is in now in power in Burma.

However, observers, activists and rights agencies have raised serious concerns over the potential repatriations, saying now is not the time for the refugees to going home as continuous armed conflict and human rights abuses are reported from eastern Burma on a near daily basis.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said the repatriation should be voluntary, and that it should be conducted “safely and with dignity.”

The humanitarian aid agency that most closely oversees the distribution of food and supplies to the refugees, the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), has also said it is too early to repatriate the refugees.

Sally Thompson, the deputy director of the TBBC, said many of the refugees may be afraid and anxious on hearing they might be repatriated.

“It is impossible to repatriate people to unstable areas,” she said.

The conflicts may force people to return to Thailand even after they have been sent back to Burma, said Thompson.

As civil war has continued in eastern Burma for more than 60 years, it is difficult to see how more than 140,000 people can be placed in a safe shelter, said Saw Poe Shan, the field director of the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG).

“Those who want to conduct the repatriations should stop and ask themselves some hard questions,” he said, adding that the entire Karen State region—where a vast majority of the refugees would be sent back to—is peppered with landmines planted not only by the Burmese army, but by several Karen factions as well.

If the refugees are repatriated, he said, international monitoring groups must be able to witness that the basic needs of the refugees are met.

According to the KHRG, Burma's government forces launched artillery attacks on Feb. 25 at communities in Saw Muh Plaw, Ler Muh Bplaw and Plah Koh village tracts in Papun District, northern Karen State, forcibly displacing residents of 14 villages into the jungle.

Wah Ku Shee, the joint general-secretary 2 of the Women’s League of Burma, said, “It is not an appropriate time to repatriate the refugees as there is no guarantee for them. We are especially concerned for the safety of women and children as they are always the most vulnerable groups.”

She said the Burmese government must withdraw its military bases from Karen State, and landmine experts should come and clear the land before the refugees are returned.

“If any of these conditions cannot be met, then now is not the time to repatriate the refugees,” she said.